Thursday, October 11, 2012


I have complained repeatedly about academic journals getting to me late, and the September 2012 CCC did not give me cause to stop; I did not receive it until the first of this month.  I know that I have been reading slowly to only now be discussing it, but I am reading it, and I do find that I have something to say about it--or, for the moment, one article in it.

That article is "Institutional Ethnography as Materialist Framework for Writing Program Research and the Faculty-Staff Work Standpoints Project," by Michelle LaFrance and Melissa Nicolas.  I was immediately drawn to the article by its authorship; I studied under Nicolas for a time, early in my graduate career (I am not so old as the phrasing makes me sound), and I regard the time working under her direction as well spent.  Accordingly, I was interested in seeing what she had been up to, and I read the article she co-authored eagerly as the subway dragged me away from home and to the office.

In the article, LaFrance and Nicolas discuss institutional ethnography (IE), a method for investigating how workplaces form themselves and situate the people who work in them, arguing that it is a valuable means for interrogating institutional practices that are often overlooked.  They outline the ways in which IE works to point out how institutional practices differ for people who perform different functions within an organization; they call it situated variability.  To do so, they give a brief overview of the history of IE and of its undergirding concepts before situating it in relation to already-existing methodologies.  Throughout, they deploy examples from their own experiences within institutions, using them to develop a particular ethos that speaks well to the common audience of the journal, and making the article a particularly effective call to use IE as another tool for those involved in the teaching of writing to look into how the context in which they teach influences the teaching they do.

As good an article as it is, though, there is a point at which I find myself calling the piece into question.  LaFrance and Nicolas comment that they are "drawn to IE because it takes into account this situated variability of experience within institutions, casting individuals as active and interested, mindfully negotiating the competing priorities and material conditions of their work day" (133).  In the comment, they seem to make assumptions about the faculty and staff of an institution, assumptions which many people hope are true but which are not always the case.  For it is not true that all of the participants in an institution are mindful of their work or particularly interested in it.

It has not seldom been my experience that there are people working in schools who are the very models of those types held up by opponents of teachers' unions and public school systems, those who come into the school simply to draw a paycheck and not with the idea of helping students to make their lives better.  I have seen it among the tenured professoriate.  (To be fair, many of them are invested in the development of knowledge--which is an aspect of the university that many among the public fail to recognize as being vitally important to the mission of the academy generally.  But that is another discussion.)  I have seen it among people traditionally classified as lecturers (full-time continuing faculty off of the tenure track).  I have very much seen it among the swelling corps of adjunct and contingent faculty as they scramble among classes and institutions to make enough money to live.  I have seen it among the staff, who do as little as they can get away with.  I have certainly seen it among administration, for whom the institution becomes a gathering of dollars and cents rather than a means to develop and augment good sense.  And I see it among all too many students, who paradoxically strive to be passive in their "educations," waiting to be short-term deposit accounts or pre-paid debit cards in the banking model, with "learning" deposited into them and rapidly spent on "the test."

It is true that such people are not the only ones to be found.  I do not know if they are the majority.  But I know that they are there (O! how I know!).  Something in the impetus LaFrance and Nicolas cite therefore sits ill with me, even as they make quite the case for deploying IE.

I shall have to give it more thought.

Work Cited
LaFrance, Michelle, and Melissa Nicolas. "Institutional Ethnography as Materialist Framework for Writing Program Research and the Faculty-Staff Work Standpoints Project." CCC 64.1 (September 2012): 130-50. Print.

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